Sunday, May 7, 2023

Dystopia Now

My eldest son recently sent me a photo of a notice posted in the window of a Barnes & Noble bookstore in Florida. It reads: “Please note: The Post-apocalyptical Fiction section has been moved to Current Affairs.” I laughed out loud.  I am sure that the store manager considered it as a joke, but it contains more truth than we like to admit. That is why it is funny … and sad.

I enjoy dystopian and post-apocalyptic novels. I am reading one now: The House at the End of the World by Dean Koontz. In recent months I read two such books by Stephen King: The Stand (all 1348 pages!) and The Long Walk. These days I often feel like I am living in a dystopian novel. This sense of unreality is reinforced as the 2024 presidential election is lining up to be a repeat of 2020. It is déjà vu all over again.

Political dysfunction is at an all-time high. Mass shootings and hate crimes are out of control. Racism and anti-Semitism are becoming socially acceptable. People spout anti-LGBTQ and misogynic rhetoric as signs of righteousness. Anti-democracy sentiment masquerades as patriotism. Confederate flags are paraded as pro-American. Lies are knowingly repeated in order to advance the cause.

Conspiracy theories are increasingly crazy. Yet people believe them. What makes this especially disturbing is that my fellow Christians are particularly vulnerable to conspiracy thinking. I guess that is not surprising. Religions require members to believe all sorts of incredible things without historical or scientific evidence. They call that faith. It is not the faith I know. To me it is plain old gullibility. Once we place our uncritical trust in religious, political or media authorities, then we accept all kinds of strange ideas unquestioningly.

Gullibility and deception are not the sole possessions of the religious or political Right. The Left has more than its share. Anyone can be deceived. If we think we are immune to deception, then we are really deceived! We all depend for our information on others. We do not have the time, resources or expertise to test every claim. That makes us vulnerable to the errors and deceptions of others. That is true of politics these days. It is true of religion. When those two are combined it is doubly dangerous!

We live in a dystopian world, and it is getting worse. Dystopian fiction feels eerily normal. The Post-apocalyptical Fiction section has moved to Current Affairs. The dysfunction has gotten more obvious in recent years because current affairs have become so cartoonish. Who could have predicted our present situation as a nation? Who could have predicted the caricature that pop Christianity has become?

What is the solution? I hesitate to say it because it sounds like a cliché, but we need God. Hear me out. What is needed is spiritual transformation. I do not think it will do any good to double down on religious-political activism. The social gospel of both the right and left are failures. The dualism of “us versus them” has gotten us into this mess. There is no trust between the two sides any more. There is no common ethic, except that “anything goes.” There is a need for a spiritual gospel that transcends divisions.

What is needed is a genuine spiritual vision of the unity that underlies all humanity. I am not talking about tired ecumenism or inter-faith dialogues. We need no more refrains of Kumbaya or We Shall Overcome. I am talking about people experiencing firsthand the divine unity that underlies all creation. That Ground of Being is the bedrock of Reality. Such an “indivisible” union is mentioned in the Pledge of Allegiance but left unrealized in American history. Only if society is built on this unity can it survive the coming storms. The thunderclouds are already on the horizon.

Does that solution sound too utopian? Probably. I am under no illusion that this will actually happen. History is not on my side. The darkness is great. I do not expect more than a few souls to transcend the dualism that grips the human psyche. But all it takes is a few. It takes only a small flame to dispel darkness. It takes only a little leaven to raise the whole lump of dough. Jesus used these metaphors to describe the coming of the Kingdom of God. We have tried “an eye for an eye,” and it has only made the whole world blind. Perhaps we should give Jesus’ teachings a chance.  

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